Speaking of Family: When Children of Queer Families Talk About Their Lives

Our older son is a fifth-grader who, along with other girls and boys his age, is trying to make sense of the cusp of adolescence. Some of the girls in his class are beginning to talk about boyfriends and the exciting prospect of kissing; all of the boys are figuring out how to deal with this. In the midst of a rapidly-changing social environment, our son is playing true to form: he is asking countless questions in an attempt to figure out how an eleven-year-old should respond. Recently one of his moms fielded a particularly memorable question: “Mom, when you were younger and first kissed a boy… or a girl… or a boy—that part’s not important—anyway, when you first kissed someone, how did you figure out how to do it?”

The Gayby Boom

As one of the children in a family comprised of two moms and two dads (along with numerous aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends), our son, along with his younger brother, is part of a growing demographic in the United States: children of lesbian and gay couples. Of course, lesbian and gay adults have been raising children for quite a long time. But there are some differences in the makeup of families today. Our sons were born to parents already living as lesbians and gay men when children became part of the family; they are not the children of women or men who were once in heterosexual relationships but who are now in same-sex relationships. Our sons are the biological offspring of one of the dads and one of the moms; they were not adopted. In short, our sons are part of a new demographic large enough to generate its own moniker: gaybies. Except that, of course, they are not babies anymore.

As our older son wades into the waters of adolescence (with all of its attendant anxiety), he is beginning to negotiate his culture: various social cues and norms, popular media, and the constant attention his friends pay to these measures. He is, in short, becoming a social subject—something that happens to kids his age. But in that process of his becoming a subject, our family becomes an issue. Some of the daughters and sons who are “gaybies,” growing into adolescence, are beginning to tell the broader American public what it is like to grow up in their families. They are becoming speaking subjects and not merely objects of psychological study or public debate or religious posturing.

On January 21, 2010, the New York Times reported on the ways in which children such as ours are beginning to speak out about their lives in state legislatures and courthouses. Their views vary. Some of these children favor full legal recognition and speak to ways in which such recognition would benefit their own families. But some are frustrated by the amount of energy expended on this issue and worry about the ways in which legislation will narrow the spectrum of queer families they know, constraining them to mimicry of straight relationships.

In our own family, this tension is real. The adults in our family yearn for the legal protection that same-sex marriage would offer. And yet, our family consists of four adults. It is a relationship, though one without a simple term to define it. While we are not the least bit interested in securing any legal recognition akin to marriage for the relationship among the four of us, we have struggled to have that relationship recognized when we petitioned the courts for legal recognition of more than two parents in regard to our children. While the courts in our home state of Georgia were willing to grant parental rights to two people of the same sex, they were not willing to grant parental rights to more than two people—even though all four of us are involved in raising our sons. We consider ourselves parents, have made personal and professional decisions that have put our children’s interest first, and are named by our children as their parents. Sounds like a family to me. And yet, since marriage presumes two in the context of children, this means that parenting presumes two as well.

These kinds of variations (variations that play out not only in our family but in countless families, gay or straight) unsettle the tidy assumptions that underlie our conceptions of normative couples and normative families. Those prospects are playing out in various parts of the world in surprising, unpredictable ways. For example, France offers legal recognition for lesbian and gay couples or for straight couples who prefer not to marry by means of a “Civil Pact of Solidarity” (“Pacte civil de solidarité” or PaCS for Francophone readers). Under the law that established these PaCS, lesbian and gay couples were specifically forbidden from public adoptions and from access to reproductive technologies that would allow them to become parents. The rationale: to become a coherent, productive French citizen, a child needs the influence of a father and a mother in her or his psychological development.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

In Europe such assumptions were based in part on cultural theories derived from structural anthropology and psychoanalysis. Neither Lévi-Strauss nor Lacan (French structuralists invoked in these debates in France) would likely be invoked in state legislatures or courts in the United States. Instead, quite often the kind of rhetoric mobilized in the American context arises from religion, most often Christianity. Such rhetoric can be quite venomous (“God hates fags”), or it can be expressed more subtly with the kind of theological anthropology that claims full humanity is only realized in the complementarity of the male and female. And yet, as I said above, however, it is not the only rhetoric. The testimony of young people (young people very much like my sons) is also part of these debates.

In the case of my sons, their own lives speak both to gay families and life in Christian communities. Three of their parents are seminary graduates. One parent is ordained and a full-time minister; I am a licensed minister and have served on the faculty of a seminary; all of us have taken our sons to worship in Christian communities. What would their testimony be (either legal or religious) in response to the kind of religious rhetoric that gets thrown around? I am not sure. Maybe they would reinterpret the baptismal covenants that call us first to be children of God, and that commit an entire community (and not merely the idealized mother and father) to the spiritual nurture of the children in its midst. Maybe they would reference Jesus’ sharp reminder of how God must come before family—even a picture-perfect family of one father and one mother—if one wants to follow him. Maybe they would bear witness to the inadequacy of a theological claim that full humanity is realized only the coupling of the man and the woman together in the simple display of their own full humanity that came to be without such coupling.

I do not know what they would say. But as they grow up and become speaking subjects with their own voice, our sons—and countless other young men and women from other queer families—will provide such testimony in their own words. I will be interested to hear what they have to say.